By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN THOSE AREAS OF THE WORLD WE ‘VE NEVER SET FOOT IN have, at least in our mind’s eye, a sense of place. Hearing about far-flung cities and towns in remembrances, histories, or novels, we tend to assign some kind of visual structure to their streets and sites. Our brains choreograph where the town hall is, what the schoolhouse looks like, maybe even the look of the setting sun on the sides of buildings. We see the unseen with very clear eyes.
For that reason, I love making images of towns that offer no clear clue as to their location or even era. I feel that the images made by a camera pair up, somehow, with the millions of mentally constructed towns we’ve held inside our minds, those many places to which we never journey but yet know by heart.
Train travel offers a great chance to deal with these places that have no context, sometimes no name. The view from a train window is ever-shifting, strangely framed. You have visual information it gives you and nothing else. Things swing into and out of view in an instant. You are always going somewhere and always leaving somewhere behind. Focusing and composing with a camera is largely a nightmare, and sharp results are rare. It’s a great way to view reality, and also a terrible arena for photographing it.
Occasionally, a slow crawl through a town or a scheduled stop offers enough stability to make a usable photo, and, when that happens, the sensation is still one of dislocation, since you often are seeing only pieces of cities, the outskirts of districts, or the all-too-real “wrong side of the tracks”. Recently traveling from Sacramento, California to Reno, Nevada through the Sierras, my train slowed almost to stopping as it made its way past a small town’s crossing gate. The city was both everywhere and nowhere. The activity in the intersection could be taking place in a thousand places, each of them interchangeable with the others. I left my seat and walked from the second level of the car halfway down to the lower, where a larger window was mounted, placing me as close to the street as if I were crossing it on foot. The train slowed long enough for me to snap off three stable frames, one of which you see here. For a moment, I’m in the town, nearly of it. I don’t know where I am. Still, I feel right at home.
Years from now, as I turn the pages of a magazine or listen to someone’s dreamy tales, this place might act as a visual stand-in for the dimensions and details of things I can’t directly view. I don’t know why or how the mind makes that work. Maybe, in a way, we’re always making pictures, with or without a camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE HAVE ALL PLAYED THE CHILDREN’S GAME OF REPEATING A WORD UNTIL IT BEGINS TO SOUND FOREIGN, OR SILLY, to be drained, in fact, of all real meaning. Context being everything, no less in photography than in any other form of expression, we can often make images that, because they have been so endlessly replicated over the years, become drained of their power, and beg for a re-imagining.
In brief, some things have been photographed so many times that they need to be taken far out of context to rebirth them as vital subject matter.
Look around the next airport souvenir shop you encounter. Look at the paperweights, the tee-shirts, the memorial shot glasses. There, in a moment, you see the symbols of the town you’re visiting (or leaving), reduced to the most hideous kitsch ever created. Lady Liberty. The Space Needle. San Francisco trolleys. You can’t “do” the towns in which these icons hold court unless you visit them and crank off a few snaps. They’re “to do” items, but not “must do”‘s. And every depiction of them is post-card standard, seen from a certain angle and in a certain orientation.
Sadly, many of these sights still could hold the symbolic power they once had, except that few of us are demanding that said power be brought forth. Ironically, we approach totally unknown subjects, things we blithely stumble onto, with the freshest eyes, not knowing the “correct” way to visualize them. We produce instinctual reactions based on how and where we first saw a thing, without the accumulated cultural baggage about how it’s “supposed” to look. We visualize it personally, rather than measuring it against the standard of thousands of other images taken of it.
So how to photograph the over-documented icon? Well, for one thing, the “postcard” view, the one in the travel brochures, must be abandoned completely. Instead of making it a homework assignment to visit a well-known place, why not assume you’ll get one random, fleeting glance at it….through a dirty window, a picket fence, a reflection in a window….and have that be your only chance to photograph it. Instead of trying to get the image “right”, pretend that you have never seen this thing, whether it be a temple or a tower. And imagine, further, that you didn’t even know the thing existed, but that, upon rounding a blind corner, you were suddenly forced to react to it.
As seen at the top of the page, the sign for Seattle’s famed Public Market is often photographed as if it were the market itself, filling the frame of many photos with just its giant red neon letters. In reality, it is a small component in a vital, bustling neighborhood filled with rich visuals. Why not merely suggest the sign as part of a larger tapestry? More importantly, what is your vision?
One great advantage in making new images of old icons is that you know so much of the standard view of the thing that, in abstracting it, you know the viewer will still follow you on the journey….that is, they can make the leap from the literal to the symbolic. It’s like improvising a jazz solo on a well-known melody.
Visualization is the photographer’s most important skill, but occasionally, re-visualization is even more vital…and revitalizing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOW ME A HOLIDAY SEASON AND I’LL SHOW YOU PEOPLE WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. They form lines for special orders, last-minute items, a kid’s brief audience with Santa. They hope to bump someone on a flight, beat someone out of a bargain, talk someone into a discount, refund or exchange. But mostly, they wait.
For as many festive holiday subjects that dance before the photographer’s eye, there are many more scenarios in which nothing much happens but..the waiting. And, while this seemingly endless hanging-out never offers images that define joy or wonder, they are fodder to the street shooter within us, the guy looking for stories. Stories of tired feet. Tales of people who can’t get a connecting flight ’til tomorrow at the earliest. Sagas of mislaid plans and misbegotten presents. Folklore of folks who are lost, lonely, disappointed, and down. In short, all of us, at various times.
Transit points are often among the most poignant during the season, with legions of faces that plead, what’ll I get for her? How will I get all the way down this list? How soon can I get home? Your best bet? Hang at the train stations, the port authorities, the airports, and hear the plaintive strains of I’ll Be Home For Christmas sung in the key of ‘as if’. Seek out those aches, that weariness, the many false starts and stumbling finishes of the holidays. And keep your camera ready, hungry for whatever visions dance in your head.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY WIFE AND I HAVE REACHED A REASONABLE DIVISION OF LABOR as regards road trips, with her taking on the nation’s freeways like an original cast member of The Road Warrior and me decoding various navigational vectors, from AAA maps to iPhones, as well as uber-producing the in-car tune mix. Everybody to their strengths and all that. This arrangement also frees me up to pursue the mythical goal of Immortal Photograph I Shot Out A Car Window, which will also be the title of my Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech.
Any day now.
Most of these potential world-beater images have been attempted through the front windshield, where it is at least a little easier to control blur, even glass reflection. Additionally, the majority of them, more and more, are done on mobile phones, which is not the greatest for resolution, but gives you that nice exaggeration on dimensions and depth that comes with a default wide-angle lens, which, in some cases, shoots broader vistas than even the kit lens on your “real” camera.
If you find yourself doing the same thing, you have no doubt noticed that you must get really, really close to your subject before even mountains look like molehills, as the lens dramatically stretches the front-to-back distances. You might also practice a bit to avoid having 10,000 shots that feature your dashboard and that somewhat embarassing Deadhead sticker you slapped on the windshield in 1985.
So, to recap: Shoot looking forward. Use a mobile for that nice cheap arty widescreen look. Frame so your dash-mounted hula girl is not included in your vistas (okay, she does set off that volcano nicely..). And wait until you’re almost on top of (or directly underneath) the object of your affection.
And keep an ear out for important travel inquries from your partner, such as: “are you gonna play this entire Smiths CD?”
Sorry, my dear. Joan Baez coming right up.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN HIS WONDERFUL 1960 ROAD JOURNAL, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes Of Wrath, Of Mice And Men and other essential American novels, laments the passing of a kind of America in much the same way that a roving photographer might. “I wonder”, he wrote as he motored through one vanishing frontier after another, “why progress looks so much like destruction.” That’s a sentiment that many a shooter has experienced as he pans his viewfinder over the various fading scenes of a constantly changing nation. Steinbeck sang his ode to these vaporized hopes on the printed page. We freeze their vanishings in a box.
However, capturing changes in a rambling big hulk of a country encompasses more than merely mourning the loss of a forest or the paving of a paradise. Photographic testimony needs to be made on the evolution of even the America we feel is vulgar, or ugly, or strange, as well as on the disappearance of the buffalo. There can be a visual poignancy in seeing even our strangest, most misbegotten features dissolving away, and great picture opportunities exist in both the beautiful and the tawdry.
One of the strangest visual cultures that we see cracking and peeling away across the USA is the culture of eating. The last hundred years have seen the first marriage between just taking a meal and deliberately creating architecture that is aimed at marketing that process. Neon signs, giant Big Boys shouldering burgers, garish arrows pointing the way to the drive-through….it’s crude and strange and wonderful, all at the same time, and even more so as its various icons start to fall by the wayside.
The Courtesy Coffee Shop, baking in the desert sun just beyond the Arizona border in Blythe, California, is one such odd rest stop. Its mid-century design, so edgy at the start of space ships and family station wagons, creaks now with age, a museum to cheeseburgers and onion rings of yesteryear. Its waitresses look like refugees from an episode of Alice. It recalls the glory days of flagstone and formica. And they’ve been doing the bottomless coffee cup thing there since the Eisenhower administration.
Steinbeck, were he on the road again today, might not give a jot about the passing of the Courtesy into history, but restaurants can be interesting mile markers on the history trail just as much as mountains and lakes. Besides, when’s the last time a mountain whipped up a Denver omelet for you?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Truck Driver: Give me some more of this poison you call coffee.
Waitress: I notice you’re on your third cup…
Truck Driver: I like your sugar.
They Drive By Night, Warner Brothers, 1940
AMERICANS CERTAINLY DID NOT INVENT THE IDEA OF STOPPING OFF FOR CHOW “ON THE WAY” TO WHEREVER. The roadside taverns and eateries that dot the globe in the spaces between village and town are the stuff of worldwide legend. Call it the “ye olde inn” tradition. However, in the 20th century, we Yanks did our bit in contributing to the romance of road food. Hey, you’re motoring across the country in your new Ford/Buick/Merrie Oldsmobile anyway, so you need some kind of, let’s call it grub infrastructure, laid out along the route.
Mind you, these won’t be the same restaurants where Grandma and the kids tuck in of a Sunday supper. We leave the linens to the landed gentry: simply paper napkins here, bub. The best “joints” actually resemble trailers more than restaurants, with the menu ranging from non-poisonous to “not bad”, but not much wider. Diners and dives don’t pull down Michelin stars and Zagat raves. But they do shape our traveling, and photographic, experiences. And now that we’re beyond the first great Golden Age of Motoring (maybe the only one, come to think of it), photo-documenting these decaying munch museums is a must.
I love the curvy chrome and Deco streamlining that forms the shell of many joints. I love them even more in their present state of slow disintegration,when the streamlining isn’t too straight, the chrome gives off an apologetic, latter-day patina, and all the angles don’t quite square up. My photographer’s eye likes these temples of makeshift cuisine because they are cheap and cheesy. They’re vulgar and obvious in their blinky, half-dead neon, kitschy colors and over-ripe graphics, and as Sinatra used to sing, that’s America to me. Love it.
Some of my favorite joints are far more dinosaur than diner, but, when you can squeeze off a frame or two of their fading glory, and amble inside for a five dollar cheeseburger deluxe, heck, boyo, that’s a combo plate you can’t even get at the Ritz. And if I could ever find the dazzling dame who modeled for the drawing of a waitress on the side of all those millions of ketchup squeeze bottles, that would be love at first sight.
Talk about your latter-day Mona Lisa. With fries.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE SURE THING ABOUT TAKING IN “THE SIGHTS” AT THE AVERAGE TOURIST ATTRACTION. You will be channeled, herded, if you will, toward exactly what the proprietors want you to see. This insures most people their coveted “Kodak Moment”, with Mom and the kids standing at the precisely picturesque sweet spot at the cathedral, the ruins, the monument, the mountain, etc. In fact, Kodak worked with parks for years to actually post signs near such perfect vistas, a polite way of yelling OVER HERE, STUPID at passersby. Thanks for the flash cards, guys.
Obviously this attempt to guide visitors to the “good stuff” can result in the occasional great image. But you and I know that, for the most part, it amounts to the completion of a homework assignment. You know, like the opposite of fun, spontaneity, um, photography.
Tomorrow, class, bring a picture of yourself standing in front of a famous landmark. And remember to smile.
I’m a big one for wandering away from the tour group….not so far as to wander aimlessly into a scary forest full of monsters, just far enough to take in the entire area while the guide drones on.
I’m not so much interested in what’s available to photograph as I am in what else is available to photograph.
Sometimes, of course, you are better off just taking your approved thirty seconds in front of the waterfall and moving on. Other times you hit something, sometimes by just looking thirty feet further.
Do I have an example? Thought you’d never ask…
There is an over-hyped old house-turned-souvie shop in La Jolla, California (one of the most gorgeous coastal towns in the west) that sits atop a subterranean cave which looks out onto the ocean. Once inside the shop, the able-boded (and those who do not suffer claustrophobia) pay to enter an extremely dark, steep, damp and cramped staircase that takes them down below the house to the cave.
Now, for a guy with a camera constantly hanging from his neck, taking anything like a usable shot in this crimped cavern is largely a crap shoot, since light is, let us say, at a premium. So the “officially” cool thing, was, for me, frustrating to say the least, and I trudged up The Staircase From Hell (my knees aren’t what they used to be) to re-enter the shop at the earth’s surface. So far, so pointless.
While my wife performed her mandatory inspection of the store’s copious supply of trinkets, I walked outside, then, instead of going back to the street, wandered around to the back of the building. Lucky choice. Suddenly I was in someone’s backyard, a hilly, curvy, strange little lot that could prove to be a nightmare for whatever neighborhood kid was doomed to cut the owner’s grass. It was only a matter of being curious enough to go about thirty feet off the official path….and yet here was the relief I wanted from chronic tour disease. An actual human habitation, complete with Hobbit-like stone landscaping and an extremely cool red scooter to counter-balance the rain-rich greens. Here was a picture I wanted. The “famous” view had shown me nothing. The “unimportant” view had given me everything.
Hey, I regularly get lost anyway. Why not have some fun doing it?
Now, where did my mommy go?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AS PHOTOGRAPHIC STAGE FRIGHT, it most likely is that vaguely apprehensive feeling that kicks in just before you connect with a potentially powerful subject. And when that subject is really Subject One, i.e., New York City, well, even a pro can be forgiven a few butterflies. They ain’t kidding when they sing, if I can make it there I can make it anywhere. But, of course, the Apple is anything but anywhere…….
Theoretically, if “there are eight million stories in the Naked City”, you’d think a photographer would be just fine selecting any one of them, since there is no one single way of representing the planet’s most diverse urban enclave. And there are over 150 years of amazing image-making to support the idea that every way of taking in this immense subject is fair territory.
And yet we are drawn (at least I am) to at least weigh in on the most obvious elements of this broad canvas. The hot button attractions. The “to-do list” locations. No, it isn’t as if the world needs one more picture of Ellis Island or the Brooklyn Bridge, and it isn’t likely that I will be one of the lucky few who will manage to bring anything fresh to these icons of American experience. In fact, the odds are stacked horribly in the opposite direction. It is far safer to predict that every angle or framing I will try will be a precise clone of millions of other visualizations of almost exactly the same quality. Even so, with every new trip to NYC I have to wean myself away from trying to create the ultimate postcard,to focus upon one of the other 7,999,999 stories in the city. Even at this late date, there are stories in the nooks and crannies of the city that are largely undertold. They aren’t as seductive as the obvious choices, but they may afford greater rewards, in that there may be something there that I can claim, that I can personally mine from the rock.
By the time this post is published, I will be taking yet another run at this majestic city and anything additional in the way of stories that I can pry loose from her streets. Right now, staring at this computer, nothing has begun, and everything is possible. That is both exhilarating and terrifying. The way to banish the travel jitters is to get there, and get going. And yes, I will bring back my share of cliches, or attempts at escaping them. But, just like a stowaway on a ship arriving in the New World, something else may smuggle itself on board.
I have to visit my old girlfriend again, even if we wind up agreeing to be just friends.
And, as all photographers (and lovers) do, I hope it will lead to something more serious.
SOMETIMES YOU CAN BECOME SO FIXATED on the shot you think you want that the shot you could have can’t squeeze through the mental haze. You might even regard an element that has the potential to actually save your image as an annoyance, as if it’s blocking the view of your sacred “plan”. The alternate idea buzzes around your skull like some stubborn house fly, and you’re eager to bat it away and get back to your grand vision.
A while back, such an element was fighting to get my attention. It was the very thing my picture needed…and the very last thing I wanted. I wish I could say I came to my senses, but it was actually only after I viewed a burst of shots, after the fact, that I fully realized I had been given a gift.
The above scene, a small rustic graveyard, can be found in a mountainous village near the greater Santa Fe area in New Mexico. The location pulled me off the road with its breathtaking setting, as well as the many hand-crafted monuments scattered among the more traditional headstones. I was thinking: nice, self-contained scenic shot, lots of local flavor, warmer-than-normal desert light, just point and click, right? Simple.
Simple, that is, until our friend here showed up. Immediately I regarded him as noise, as an interruption of my “ideal” shot. Never mind the folly of thinking that there is only one way to approach a subject: I was muttering a few silent oaths even as I continued to click and track him as he crossed the graveyard. When was he going to get out of the way, so I could back to my master plan?
I kept everything I shot, figuring that I might have accidentally gotten my wonderful empty scenic before my visitor came along. Instead, at full-size review later, I came back again and again to look at him. His slim solitary form, his simple dress, his two plain flowers, and his downcast gaze all lent a story to what had been a simple, if nice, still life. In giving that sad little field some badly needed human context, his presence proved that it was he who belonged there. If there was an intruder in this drama, it was me. I was just there to take pictures of his life.
He was busy living it.
I frequently find that if I just turn my mind off and stop obsessing about my “vision”, many settings yield something stronger and more elequent than my original design. Think of it as being a sketch artist who keeps his options open by laying in as many pencil lines as you can before inking the final choice. Most importantly, you must trust and be thankful for the occasional gift.